Sunday, September 30, 2012

PowerPoint Presentations: Proceed with Caution

There may seem like no drier topic than writing about PowerPoint, but I think it is an issue worthy of conversation, particularly in how it is used in academic settings. I've seen PP presentations improve over the last few years, but occasionally I still encounter the PP presentation that tries to compete with a Broadway show (rather than support the speaker), or falls flat out of some sense that PP slides are an obligation.

 I heard many wonderful papers at the Fall meeting of the New England Chapter of the American Musicological Society yesterday.* I was particularly struck, however, by Dan DiCenso's paper, "More Roman than "Gregorian," More Frankish than "Old Roman": What a Newly Rediscovered Italian Source Reveals about the Roman and Frankish Character of Chant Transmission in the Mid-Ninth Century." The presentation was not only full of intriguing content, but was an exemplary use of PowerPoint. Dan's presentation was also a good model for engaging a mixed audience on a topic that may be relatively foreign to a large group within the audience. He included comparative tables which clearly illustrated the various relationships between the Monza manuscript and the Sárospatak fragment, as well as other Old Roman sources. There was no need to be well-versed in medieval manuscripts, as Dan presented his information as clearly-defined visual data. Thoughtful use of circles and arrows highlighted particular elements of a slide as he spoke.

I used to teach at a place that had fully wired classrooms, so I made use of the technology and encouraged the students to do so as well.  When a group engaged PowerPoint slides for their projects,  this was a learning experience for all parties involved. There are two major errors I see in PP presentations: The Gratuitous PowerPoint and The Overwrought PowerPoint. I will define each, and indicate the pitfalls of both types.

The Gratuitous PowerPoint: This is the PP presentation filled with photographs, special fonts, fancy formatting, and all sorts of bells and whistles that offer little more than entertainment value. This is often motivated by a lack of substance in the actual presentation.

  • Visual input can detract from aural input (for more on this, I recommend reading Rich Mayer's ideas regarding cognitive loads in Multi-Media Learning)
  •  The opportunity for students to grasp the outline form of a presentation might be impeded by various kinds of visual miscellanea
  • Forced PowerPoint presentations can lead to sloppy work (I remember well a presentation on composer Roger Sessions which began with a slide of software architect Roger Sessions, simply because he was the first result in a Google Image search).
The Overwrought PowerPoint:  Similar to the Gratuitous PP (but often stemming from different motivation) this is the PP that tries too hard and probably includes too much information.

  • There is so much information included on the slide, that the viewer is either distracted by the presenter, or the two cancel each other out. Students often feel it necessary to copy everything down off the slides.
  • Highlighting everything can corrupt the structure of a presentation, as well as allowing viewers to hone in on the emphatic points of the presentation.
  • Often there is little else left to be said, so the slides become a transcript of the presentation.

There are certainly more pitfalls, but I'd rather focus on what I like to see in a PP presentation, and how I do think they can be beneficial--both in terms of the process of making a presentation and in terms of the impact on an audience.

  • The student is forced to draw out the cogent and important main points from their topic
  • The student can decide what needs visual illustration and what does not
  • The student gets experience giving a presentation accompanied by visual media
  • Helps engage the student with different modes of learning
  • opportunities to put faces to names (particularly helpful in the classroom)
  • musical examples (CAVEAT: full pages of score with tiny annotations are better viewed on a handout--especially in a large conference setting).
  • simple animations to highlight events in score examples
  •  in-slide audio examples
  • can help reinforce reading of lengthier quotations (as long as they are read aloud with the presentation of the slide).
  • using charts, tables, and graphs to represent comparisons, historical trends, etc. Again, this can engage multiple modes of learning by re-framing something with non-traditional illustrations. For example, a melody might be expressed as a graph of pitches (y-axis) in time (x-axis) to effectively demonstrate the concept of "melodic contour" in a music appreciation course.

So, PowerPoint presentations can become a crutch if used incorrectly. The general rule I give my students is: PowerPoint should enhance your presentation, but if the technology fails, your presentation should still be engaging and informative. This encourages both backups (CDs of musical examples) and a sense of responsibility regarding what is presented off-slide.

What are your PowerPoint tips? Pet peeves?


*All the slide presentations at this meeting were fine to great, according to the criteria I propose here.

Monday, July 09, 2012

"Writing to Learn" Seminar at Bard's Institute for Writing and Thinking: Day 1

"Quaker reading"... "focused free write"..."framing our inquiry..."big brain discussion". These are some of the terms that floated around the room last night at the first workshop of the Writing to Learn Session here at The Institute for Writing and Thinking at Bard College. We began with a five minute private free write, and then a focused private free write in response to a quote by Jeanette Winterson. I am not new to the ideas of free writing, but it was nice to sit around a seminar table and engage in it again as a student. Unsurprisingly, I surprised myself. ;-) I sense that there is going to be a lot of writing involved, which pleases me greatly.  I did bring my laptop, but I prefer to write by hand in the workshops (Bard has provided us with special wide-margined notebooks for this purpose). I find that it forces me to be slower and, in some ways, less of a perfectionist. This might even be because I don't like seeing strikeouts and other "messy" things on a page, so maybe the perfectionism issue is still there. Most of this blog post is actually a free write (part of my morning pages at, so I apologize to any readers I might have.

I guess that was my disclaimer.  We were told last night, by our excellent workshop leader Maureen Burgess, that we were allowed one disclaimer when we shared our writing. I thought, "Ha! She knows me!" Leaving off the editorializing preamble was more difficult than I thought--I managed to do it, but I had to squash the desire. I was actually quite surprised by my own reaction to the prompt: "Tell the story when a piece of writing moved you." I was moved by the act of telling that story. I finished with this:
"I loved being a puzzle piece that never quite fit, but could fake it if pushed hard enough."
I have no idea where that came from, except that I remembered I wrote a poem in junior high about the world as a jigsaw puzzle. I don't remember the words of the poem, except that I focused on the image of the cardboard stubs that sometimes make it difficult to fit the pieces together. I guess that image has traveled with me in my subconscious.

Before we checked in to the Institute, my colleague and I attended a wonderful dance performance by Compagnie Fêtes galantes (at Bard's Fisher Center). Set to music by Bach (2nd, 3rd and 6th Brandenburgs; "Wir eilen mit schwachen..." from Cantata 78), the company presented roughly an hour of some of the most interesting choreography I've ever witnessed.  Based heavily on Baroque dance, Béatrice Massin's choreography incorporates all sorts of modern gestures, and even flamenco. The entire work, entitled Que ma joie demeure/Let my joy remain, featured "unmusical" interludes--dancing that had no musical accompaniment save for the sound of the dancers' feet. These interludes were fascinating as Bach's counterpoint seemed to remain in the room by proxy--you could see it in the dancer's moves and the patterns created on stage. It was captivating and the whole troupe gave new life to Baroque gesture and dance as a platform for creative expansion.

I don't know if I will blog every day of this seminar, and I don't want to reveal too many details. But even after Day 1, I get a very strong sense of writing to learn. It has always been part of my own writing experience in some sense...that is why I love to write. We finished our workshop last night with one of Paul Auster's essays in the New Yorker, "Why Write?" It is an amazingly powerful piece, especially when read collectively by a group of strangers. Auster says, "If nothing else, the years have taught me this: if there's a pencil in your pocket, there's a good chance that one day you'll feel tempted to start using it."

Monday, June 25, 2012

750 Words: How to Write the Words you Love, While Maintaining Professor's Fatigue

(Insert apologetic paragraph about my absence from this blog).

I'm here now.
One of the biggest revelations of teaching is how much time it takes away from writing. Actually, it would be more accurate to say how much energy it takes away from writing. I never thought I'd miss the days of the dissertation, when it was just me and the computer for hours on end...

Ok, I don't really miss those days. But I do worry that ideas are rotting in my head rather than fermenting, and I'm hoping to commit more of them to paper (or pixels, I suppose). To that end, I'm trying  The idea is that you write in an uninhibited and spontaneous way, every day, and the website tracks your words for you (as well as various other statistics which can be entertaining...see below).  This is akin to what I call "mental barf" when helping my students through the writing process.  This is the "quantity, not quality" approach, which has its use...particularly in getting over the biggest hurdle of writing: starting.

What you write is private, and presumably many people use the site for a personal journal. My 755 words today about Copland and the Communists could explain why my stats say I'm feeling "upset." Words like "insidious," "posturing" and "darkness" are bound to get those algorithms computing a profile of a rather melancholy author.

So, why a website like this instead of just sitting down and opening up MS Word every day? Well, I think, as pathetic as it might sound, it helps to have a little virtual writing coach. When you hit 750 words, a sedate green pop-up informs you of your accomplishment, and you can either keep going, or stop for the day.  Points are awarded for writing at all, writing 750 words, and so forth.

During the school year, I seem to go on a diet which includes cutting out most writing, research and performing and depends solely on the nutritive qualities of lesson planning, grading, and teaching. This summer, in an attempt to be more musicologically healthy, I'm slowly introducing research and writing back into the diet. My hope is, with regular practice, healthy writing will become a part of my daily regimen, even during the school year.

I'd love to hear from those of you who use 750words or programs like it.  What strategies do you have for consistent writing?


Mostly Musicology, Teaching, and a bit of Miscellanea